“Oh, certainly,” Caroline interrupted. “A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half-deserved.”
Darcy watched as Elizabeth fought the urge to roll her eyes. He agreed: Caroline was insufferable, but
was a different story. “All this she must possess,” he taunted, “and to all this she must yet add something more substantial in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.” Darcy knew Caroline never read a book unless forced to do so; however, Elizabeth sat on the sofa with one in her hand. He suspected that with Mr. Bennet’s reputation for extensive reading his daughter would follow suit. Besides, as well as Elizabeth battled verbally with him, he knew instinctively that she devoured books.
“I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any,” she dared to question his opinion.
“Are you so severe upon your own sex as to doubt the possibility
of all this?” By now, he saw only her—only Elizabeth made him feel this way.
“I never saw such a woman. I never saw such capacity and taste and application and elegance as you describe, united.”
You! He wanted to scream.You are that woman!
But before they could continue, Mr. Hurst and Mr. Bingley cried out against the injustice of her implied doubt, and the conversation died a slow death under their protests. Darcy, energized by the exchange, wanted more, but he realized the grave danger being in Elizabeth’s presence created. Luckily, or unluckily, Elizabeth soon afterward left the room.
For Darcy, the knowledge that she was in the same house and only a few doors away tormented him throughout the day, so at bedtime, unable to put that last exchange from his mind, he made his way to Netherfield’s library. “Possibly,” he muttered to himself, “something decent to read will distract me.” He chose a book on military history and took up residence in one of the wing chairs before the hearth. Having read a couple of chapters, he had nearly nodded off when he heard a noise on the stairs. Put on alert, he sat perfectly still, praying it was not Caroline Bingley.
Midnight—and still unable to sleep after her nearly heated conversation with Mr. Darcy—Elizabeth paced the room. She checked on Jane, but her sister rested soundly. All day long she had thought of him, even though she saw him only during dinner. Images of where he might be in the house kept her awake. She would give anything for a way to unwind.“Why not?” she said aloud.
Reaching for her wrapper, Elizabeth pulled it over her muslin gown. “At this time of night, who else could be awake?” She lit a candle and eased her way out the door.The carpeting muffled the sound of her footsteps, but she heard the squish of each step on the marble stairs.
A dim light came from the library as she approached the door. Assuming it to be only the fire burning down slowly, she entered without thinking; but seeing a movement near the hearth, Elizabeth
froze, poised for action.Then she recognized the figure, slowly coming to its feet in the shadows.
“Mr. Darcy!” she gasped.
Turning towards the sound of her voice, he felt a pull in his groin, a strange sense of lust and longing. Maybe it was because his heart thudded to a complete stop when his eyes beheld her. Elizabeth stood in the middle of the room, barefoot and in her night shift and dressing gown. His dreams of her did not come close to her exquisite beauty. His heart clenched with the recognition of how much he wanted her. She was everything—pure intelligence—pure control—pure loveliness. “Miss—Miss Elizabeth,” he stammered,“I did not expect company at such an hour.”
Elizabeth let her gaze wander over him. He wore tight breeches and a loosely fitted shirt open at the neck. Standing so tall and erect, she thought him one of the most handsome men she ever met. “I beg your pardon, Sir. I could not sleep. Netherfield has a reputation for possessing an exceptional library. I came in search of a book.” Then with a touch of mischief she added, “Improve my accomplishments and all.”
Darcy muffled a chuckle and gestured towards the shelves. “I am sure you may find something of interest here.” He knew he should excuse himself, but he could not leave her. His gaze slid over her once again.“May I help you find a book to your liking? It seems that since I came to Netherfield, I have spent an inordinate number of hours in here.”
Elizabeth smiled uneasily; she should not be found in her night-clothes in the middle of the evening spending time with a man.Yet if she really wanted to learn more of Mr. Darcy, what better way than a private conversation? “I am a voracious reader: politics, military history, science—”
“What? No romance?” his voice held a playful quality she was beginning to recognize.
“Mrs. Ratcliffe is entertaining, but my favorite is Fanny Burney’s
In poetry, William Cowper reigns supreme.” She walked towards the shelves, pretending to peruse the offerings,
although her body remained attuned to the man sharing the room with her.
He thoroughly enjoyed watching her walk away—the slight sway of her hips.A wave of lust washed over him as Darcy laughed quietly.“No Lord Byron, Miss Elizabeth?”
She turned with a blush, a redness rising across her chest and neck. “I suppose that
” she charged, “prefer such decadent reading, Mr. Darcy, but I assure you,
read Lord Byron?” he countered.
For a moment, she started to deny his assertion, but then Elizabeth laughed at herself. “I am my father’s child. I read when and what I should not.”
Darcy walked to where she stood. “Mr. Bennet has the reputation for being quite the bookworm.With your quick wit and love of twisting the King’s English, I should have known.You played me fair in our verbal duels.” He reached for a book on one of the upper shelves and handed it down to her. “You might enjoy this one, Miss Elizabeth.”
She stood looking up into a face with which she was beginning to become more comfortable. In silence, he held her laughing green eyes with his. Her eyes sparked with passion and some indecipherable emotion. “You deserve my reproofs, Mr. Darcy,” she asserted.
Darcy’s smile spread across his face. “I have been taken to task before, Miss Elizabeth, but I cannot say I ever enjoyed it quite as much.” Unconsciously, nearly trancelike, as in his dream, he reached out to tuck an errant strand of hair behind her ear. Elizabeth did not flinch, just continued to stare deeply, seemingly into his soul. She tilted her face towards his palm. Darcy was on the brink—a precipice—a stepping-off point, and he was helpless to stop it. “It is a scandalous proposition, but would you consider keeping me company for awhile? I will freshen the fire to make the room more comfortable.”
“I would enjoy that very much, Mr. Darcy.” She swallowed hard, trying to force the desire, as well as the nervousness, away.
He took her hand and led her back to a wing chair. Then he added additional logs to the flames and stirred the embers. “May I get you a drink, Miss Elizabeth? I am afraid that it is too late—or maybe too early—for tea.”
“Some wine would be nice, Mr. Darcy.”As he turned to tend to the drinks, Elizabeth consciously inhaled deeply to regain her composure. The touch of his hand—so tempting—so strong—so warm—had shattered her senses.
In a few brief moments, he returned, carrying two glasses—a brandy for him and a glass of wine for her. He noted she sat with her feet tucked up underneath her to fend off the chill, so Darcy reached for a knitted shawl lying across the back of a nearby chair. “Let us lay this across your lap for warmth.” He boldly placed it over her legs, delighting in the intimacy of the moment and experiencing a rush of desire. “Might I get you another for your shoulders?”
“No, Sir, I am very comfortable. Please have a seat.” She gestured towards his chair.
He returned to his chair, picking up the book he had left lying upon her entrance. “How is Miss Bennet?” he asked as he laid the book on the table.
“My Jane is tougher than her beauty might lead a person to believe. She will suffer for a few more days, but the illness will run its course. It is very kind of Mr. Bingley to open his home to us.”
“Charles is delighted to be of service.” Darcy knew his friend to be “delighted
for other reasons, but he kept that information to himself.“I took note, Miss Elizabeth, you chose to walk to Netherfield this morning.”
Politely ignoring his implied criticism, Elizabeth offered one of her amused smiles. “I did, Mr. Darcy. I am assuming Miss Bingley also
of my ramblings.”
Darcy returned her smile with one of his own. “Miss Bingley prides herself on being observant. I simply meant that, unlike your sister, you chose to walk rather than to ride or to come in your father’s coach.”
“My father’s coach was unavailable, Mr. Darcy, and I am no horsewoman.”
“Really? That surprises me. I would guess you to be a daredevil on a horse.” He took a sip of his brandy, letting it trickle down his throat.“You have an adventurous spirit.”
She turned crimson again, a bit surprised by his forwardness, but Elizabeth nodded her head in acceptance of his veiled compliment. “I do not fear riding. Unfortunately, the opportunity to learn never presented itself. My father’s stable is limited.”
“I could give you lessons while you are at Netherfield. Mr. Bingley has several fine choices, and I would take great pleasure in offering you my expertise.” He looked at her in all sincerity, hoping she might accept, as it would give him an excuse to spend more time with Elizabeth.
For a moment, Darcy could tell she seriously considered his offer, but she flashed a regretful smile, and then declared,“I cannot, Sir, impinge on your kindness.” He would not embarrass her with his insistence; he let it pass, realizing intuitively that her decision was for the sake of economy.“Would you tell me about your estate, Mr. Darcy? I understand it to be quite grand.”
“Pemberley House sits at the top of a considerable eminence and is situated on the opposite side of a valley through which the entrance road lies. It is a large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground and backed by a ridge of high woody hills. In front, there is a stream of natural importance. Its banks are neither formal, nor falsely adorned.” For some ten minutes, he expounded on the property he loved. “I—I apologize, Miss Elizabeth,” he stammered when he realized how long he spoke. “I am afraid you touched on a favorite subject of mine.”
She nodded. “It sounds heavenly, Mr. Darcy. I was far from bored.To think you take on such obligations! It is a great responsibility for a young man.”
He swallowed hard; Elizabeth seemed to understand his obsession with the land, a fact for which he was not prepared. “My father passed six years ago—my mother shortly after the birth of
my sister. In retrospect, I know my father groomed me for the position of Pemberley’s master and Georgiana’s guardian from an early age. It is all I ever knew.”
“Georgiana? Your sister? Is she much younger than you, then?” Elizabeth finished off the last of her wine and placed the empty glass on the table.
“She is twelve years my junior. Often I feel I am her parent more than her brother,” he confessed.
“Then she is of the age of Lydia and Kitty,” Elizabeth observed, unobtrusively examining his reaction.
“Georgiana is not as outgoing as your sisters. She is very shy and reserved.” He did not want to seem to criticize Elizabeth’s family. The thought of family made him remember how Elizabeth sang about his ancestor Ellender D’Arcy; he had debated for days whether to tell her of his connection to the song.“I never complimented you on your performance at Sir William’s, Miss Elizabeth. You have a mesmerizing voice. I do not believe I ever heard ‘Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender’ done so well.”
Elizabeth looked off, as if remembering some lost detail. “It is one of my favorites.”
“Such a song—a favorite?” His voice rose with anticipation. He nearly leaned forward to be closer to her.
“May I share a family secret with you, Mr. Darcy?”
He heard the mischief in her voice.“Sharing secrets?” he teased her.“Our relationship moves to another level.”
“Mr. Darcy, you love to lampoon my words, but I take no offense.” She gazed at him steadily. “I love the song because Lord Thomas, upon whom the tale is based, is a distant relative. My father’s family came here many generations ago from Scotland.The story of Lord Thomas Benning and his love for Fair Ellender haunts many a child in my bloodline. Is that silly? A woman’s fancy?”
Darcy felt his breath rush from his lungs. His ancestor Ellender D’Arcy loved Elizabeth’s ancestor Lord Thomas Benning. How could that be? Did Elizabeth know of the curse Ellender created with that love?
Was it design or Fate that brought us together?
thought rang clearly in his head. “It is not silly, nor is it simply a female fancy,” he began. “Traditions—family traditions—are cherished, even if they take a tragic twist.” He stood quickly, not sure he wanted to continue the conversation.Thoughts of curses and darkness and black magic filled him. “I intend to retire on that note. Might I escort you to your room, Miss Elizabeth?”
She stood also, folding the shawl to replace it on the chair. “Thank you, Mr. Darcy.”
He picked up the candle to light their way, and Elizabeth fell in step beside him. At the top of the stairs, they turned to their right. When they paused outside her room, Darcy waited until she reached for the door handle. “Miss Elizabeth, this was a pleasant way to end an evening.Thank you for the company.”
“It was…it was…eye-opening,” she whispered as she impulsively leaned towards him. She allowed herself to steal a glance at him and was amazed at how handsome he was.